I sometimes worry about my old pal Leo. He’s 80 years old, scuffling with Parkinson’s, and navigating the world the best he can. Plus, his is a life that, from a conventional viewpoint, lacks a firm base of support: There’s no partner or spouse (ex- or otherwise) and no children. His only sibling died several years ago. Alarmingly frail, he lives alone in a cluttered one-bedroom apartment chiefly notable for its wide variety of tripping hazards, and I often wonder who he’ll turn to when the inevitable medical emergency occurs.
Leo is one of an estimated 1 million older Americans whom researchers are labeling “kinless.” It’s a demographic quirk primarily caused by boomers’ relative disdain for marriage and large families as well as by our extended lifespans. And, as Paula Span reports in the New York Times, those who find themselves without kin later in life tend to face more mental and physical challenges than their counterparts who are blessed with even a modicum of family support.
“Getting old is hard under the best of circumstances, and even harder if you’re going it alone or with weak social ties,” Boston University sociologist Deborah Carr, PhD, tells Span.
One study of kinless middle-age and older adults in Canada revealed higher levels of loneliness among that cohort as well as poorer overall health. Their tendency to avoid social activities, the authors noted, could lead to cognitive dysfunction. Data from the Health and Retirement Study also suggests those without kin die earlier than those surrounded by family. Tracking participants a decade after initial interviews, researchers found more than eight in 10 respondents with partners and children were still alive while only six in 10 kinless participants had survived.
All this evidence paints a fairly dismal portrait of those who, like Leo, have chosen a path free of family obligations, but to hear Frank Bruni tell it, we shouldn’t overlook the upsides.
Writing in the Times, Bruni concedes that older Americans who lack family support do face some daunting challenges, but he takes issue with the widespread cultural view that anyone who chooses to live alone, eschewing marriage and family, is doomed to a tortured existence. “In an era that exhorts everyone to respect the full range of human identity and expression, there can still be a whiff of stigma to living uncoupled in a household of one,” he notes. “There’s puzzlement over it, pity for it. Surely you didn’t choose this. Possibly, you brought it on yourself.”
These choices, Bruni argues, are more complicated than conventional wisdom may suggest. “For many people, yes, living alone is a present or incipient danger. For many others, it’s bliss,” he writes. “It’s loud music when you crave that energy and silence when you need to concentrate — no negotiations, no complaints. It’s mess when you can’t rally to impose order and order when you can no longer stomach mess.”
We all have our indulgences, no matter the size of our household, he points out. And there’s no reason to believe kinless individuals are less generous or compassionate than those boasting spouses and kids. “Many of us who live alone tend to our friends with extra care because we don’t have constant company at home. Those friendships can be richer as a result,” he explains. “We’re hardly hermits, though we can play that part for whole weekends if we’re feeling unusually tired or especially reflective. What a sweet and singular freedom that is.”
Leo’s not one to reveal much about his home life, but he’s never shy about relating his adventures in wider society. Just the other day he called to report on the most recent of a series of holiday galas — including a detailed rundown of the multicourse menu.
“Who did you go with?” I asked, knowing Leo doesn’t drive anymore.
“My friend John; the one on dialysis,” he replied. “He had a ball!”
Leo’s network of friends is legendary, spanning generations and more than a few time zones, and his reliance on it for tasks such as grocery shopping and computer repair — not to mention regular freelance writing gigs — has allowed him to retain a semblance of independence despite his physical challenges. It’s a coalition that must be constantly nurtured and gradually expanded (people die, after all); nobody I know reaches out to friends more regularly and connects so convivially.
Still, he knows that even his closest comrades will not be stepping up when he’s no longer able to get to the toilet by himself, hence his investment in long-term care insurance. We try not to dwell on such contingencies during our monthly lunches and frequent phone conversations. “We’re still here, Boss,” he often observes, and we leave it at that.
When he called the other day, though, I happened to mention I was feeling a bit under the weather, and there was an uncharacteristic pause on the other end of the line.
“It’s not COVID, I hope,” he ventured finally.
“No, Leo,” I assured him. “Just a cold.”
“I’m glad, Boss,” he confessed. “I worry about you sometimes.”